Snubs, surprises and Ben Affleck

And why the Baftas will always be the Oscars' too keen little brother

The 2013 Bafta nominations, which were announced yesterday, got to enjoy just over 24 hours of luxurious newsworthiness before being eclipsed today by the Oscar roll-call. The Oscars are putting out their bunting earlier than usual this year in order to take some of the dubious shine off this Sunday’s ceremony for the Golden Globes. (The Globes, for those who just tuned in, are voted for by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association; in any reasonable person’s evaluation, they rate slightly lower than a rancid cuddly toy won at a fairground hoopla stall.) Any griping about the contenders proposed by an awards body amounts to nothing more dignified than playground name-calling. So join me now as I venture back into the school-yard to call someone else’s mum “ugly” and to brag that my dad could beat the crap out of yours (which is actually true).

Most Ridiculous Nomination

Bafta doesn’t have much going for it — the awards arm likes to think of itself as Oscar’s little brother, but you just know that if the two of them met at a party, Bafta would be all “Bro!” and Oscar would be, like, “Er, do I know you? Sorry, you’ll have to speak to my press agent if you want a signed photograph” before getting fist-bumped by Tom Cruise and Jay-Z while Bafta is grabbed in a headlock by security. But Bafta can stand tall this year and boast that it has waltzed off with the title of Most Ridiculous Nomination. Workaday awards bodies are content merely to snub and overlook, but it takes a unique brand of idiocy to amass the votes necessary to propose as a Best Actor contender Ben Affleck in Argo. It’s the perfect nomination for when you want to say: “Screw you, Jean-Louis Trintignant and your tremendous work in Amour!”

Most Pleasantly Surprising Nomination

The two Screenplay awards (Adapted and Original) traditionally offer slightly more space for innovation and daring than the other categories, so it’s perhaps to be expected that the two (unrelated) Andersons—Wes for Moonrise Kingdom (co-written by Roman Coppola) and Paul Thomas for The Master—get the nod from Bafta, with only Moonrise making it into the same Oscar category. For a true surprise we must look to the Animated Film category, where justifiable love has been expressed by both Bafta and Oscar for the marvellous stop-motion comedy-chiller ParaNorman (and, more predictably, the very good and tonally similar Frankenweenie).

The Tom Hooper/The King’s Speech Award (formerly known as The Ron Howard D’Or and The “Just Because You Liked the Film, Did You Have to Nominate the Bloody Director?” Prize).

Bafta makes it two in a row for Ben Affleck by suggesting implicitly in its nomination for him as Best Director for Argo that he is a more accomplished filmmaker than either of the Andersons (see above) or Steven Spielberg. In the case of the Oscars, Kathryn Bigelow, a previous Best Director winner (for The Hurt Locker), has lost out in that field even though her hunt-for-Osama-bin-Laden film, Zero Dark Thirty, is a Best Picture nominee. I’m a huge admirer of Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, but the idea of him competing for a directing prize with Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Quentin Tarantino (the slavery revenge western Django Unchained), let alone Michael Haneke (Amour), is positively surreal, like seeing Bernie Clifton and his London Marathon Ostrich challenging Usain Bolt in the 200m.

The “Can’t We Make It a Tie-Breaker?” Award (coupled this year with the “Best Off-screen PR Angle” Award).

Squaring up to one another this year at the Oscars will be Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), who at 85 is the oldest Best Actress nominee in history, and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), who at 9 is the youngest. Now I like Riva’s performance very much. But I also think that Wallis’s is the best part of Beasts. So which one is better? There’s only one way to find out.

The Most Egregious Snub Award

You might say this should go to Bigelow at the Oscars. For me it’s the minor scandal of Steven Spielberg being ignored by Bafta. Yes, Lincoln is Tony Kushner’s baby (as I’ve suggested in the latest issue of the NS), so it’s only right that he has been nominated in the Adapted Screenplay category. But what a crime to overlook Spielberg in the Director category for his mastery of tone, his faultless pacing and the way he keeps the film balanced between human detail and historical sweep. I fantasise about a recount in which Affleck’s Bafta nomination is turned over to Wes Anderson while voters give Quentin Tarantino’s one to Spielberg instead, confessing that in all the hubbub they got their slavery films muddled up.

The “Even a Stopped Clock Tells the Right Time Twice a Day” Award For Good Sense Accidental or Otherwise.

A big hooray for the following at the Baftas: Bart Layton and his producer Dmitri Doganis nominated for their wily and gripping documentary The Imposter (Outstanding Debut By a British Writer, Director or Producer and Best Documentary); the smattering of amour for Amour (Film Not in the English Language, Director, Leading Actress, Original Screenplay); recognition for Lynne Ramsey’s vaguely Olympics-related Swimmer (Short Film). There are also some deserving names in the Bafta Rising Star category voted for by the public; these include Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), Juno Temple (last seen in Killer Joe and The Dark Knight Rises—but check out Kaboom for her best work) and Andrea Riseborough, who was nominated either for her tremendous work in Shadow Dancer or for surviving Madonna’s W.E. The Oscars also get it right with their enthusiasm for Amour, which breaks out of the Foreign Language ghetto and into the list of Best Picture nominees. But it’s the title of an earlier Haneke film which sums up nicely this whole awards business: Funny Games.

The Bafta ceremony is on 10 February, the Oscars on 24 February

Ben Affleck, director of Argo (Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Hugo Glendinning
Show Hide image

The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.